Herbert Spencer

“Charity Is in Its Nature Essentially Civilizing”: In Defense of Herbert Spencer

Ian Millhiser has responded to both my defense of Herbert Spencer and one from Reason’s Damon Root. Unwavering in his belief that Spencer was a monster, Millhiser has doubled down on his claim that Spencer advanced a kind of “genocidal libertarianism.” Millhiser has rightly retreated, however, from boldly claiming, without evidence, that Rand Paul is a fan of Herbert Spencer. I thank him for his response, and I offer a few more thoughts on Spencer here.

First, it’s clear that Millhiser is an active and vehement opponent of libertarianism. He seems to believe–although I don’t want to put words in his mouth–that libertarianism is inherently “genocidal,” regardless of whether it’s advocated by Spencer, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. So, on one level, Millhiser’s reaction to Spencer is simply a reiteration of his distaste for libertarianism and, insofar as that is the source of Millhiser’s discontent, I’m not going to try to argue with him that libertarianism isn’t inherently a cold, heartless philosophy. The possibility of that debate being productive is long passed.

But is there something particularly odious about Spencer’s brand of libertarianism, as Millhiser seems to think? Spencer writes with the peculiar verve of a 19th-century British intellectual, coming from the same milieu as anthropologists who would blithely discuss the “savage and uncivilized mongoloid and negroid races.” Similarly, Spencer would insouciantly attack the lazy, shiftless, and incompetent.

Post-modern relativism makes us balk at these absolute terms. In modern politics we tend to think more about the conditions into which people are born rather than their personal responsibility. Discussions of the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” are now largely uncouth.

But to Spencer, as to most 19th-century political and social theorists, the distinction mattered. Like many modern libertarians and conservatives, Spencer was very concerned that profligate and indiscriminate assistance for the poor would incentivize bad behavior. Although many on the left loathe the idea that welfare can create bad behavior, most people understand that concern. To anyone who’s ever had to cut off ne’er-do-well friends or family from further charity in order to help them out, those concerns make sense.

Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?

In a hit piece on Rand Paul posted on ThinkProgress, Ian Millhiser has taken guilt by association to new heights, and, in the process, fundamentally misrepresented the views of Herbert Spencer.

In “Rand Paul’s Favorite Philosophers Think Poor People Are ‘Parasites,’” Millhiser attempts to connect Rand Paul to 19th-century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer. He does this by constructing a stunningly attenuated chain of influences: Rand Paul to his father Ron Paul, who was unquestionably influential on his thinking; Ron Paul to Murray Rothbard, by whom Ron Paul was greatly influenced; and Murray Rothbard to Herbert Spencer, whose book Social Statics Rothbard called “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.”

Millhiser offers no direct evidence that Rand Paul himself is a fan of Herbert Spencer, even though he implies so in his title. Despite this bit of journalistic malfeasance, Millhiser marches bravely forward with further misrepresentations about Spencer’s ideas, and, by implication, Senator Paul’s. Here Millhiser is joining a long, if not admirable, tradition of people misrepresenting Herbert Spencer’s ideas in order to attack proponents of capitalism. As usual, those critics are wrong about what Spencer himself actually wrote and believed.

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